Numeracy Campaign: What We Can Learn from China
Monday, 18 June 2012
The Telegraph, UK (Online)
An eminent Chinese mathematician reveals the secrets of his country’s excellent maths education system to Peter Stanford.
'Above all, it is a cultural thing.” Professor Lianghuo Fan is reflecting on the differences he has noticed between maths education in China and Singapore, where he lived and taught for 40 years, and in Britain, where he is now based. “In China, all parents know that maths is the number one subject in schools, and they expect that in a modern society everyone must be comfortable with maths, even if that means they have to work hard at it.
“That attitude is passed on to their children. But here in Britain, you can feel students’ attitude about mathematics is different. They feel all right if they say they don’t like mathematics.”
Professor Fan is not alone in highlighting this national phobia of ours about maths. The government has this week shown itself determined to tackle the problem head on with the unveiling of a new “back-to-basics” primary school maths curriculum, with a renewed emphasis on times-tables, mental arithmetic, fractions and rote learning.
Most people over 40 will see the proposals as a return to the classroom practice of their childhood – but in its introductory remarks the Department for Education claimed inspiration from Asian model that Professor Fan knows so well: “I never heard a child in China or Singapore say that they don’t like maths’,” he stresses, “without a sense of embarrassment.”
We are sitting in a café near Southampton University – where 50-year-old Professor Fan has been head of the Mathematics and Science Education Research Centre since 2010 – as we try to decide if anything lies behind the popular stereotype that Asian children are “naturally” better at maths than those in the West. It is, for example, in the core storyline of Safe, the recent Hollywood blockbuster, starring Jason Statham. An 11-year-old girl, Mei (played by Chinese-born actress Catherine Chan), is a maths prodigy who can decode number sequences at a glance – and therefore has to be protected from the baddies.
If anyone should know the truth about such generalisations, it is Professor Fan, who grew up near Shanghai and was so good at maths that he was sent off to university at 15. After a spell as a maths teacher, and then as a trainer of maths teachers, he did further research at Chicago University before joining the internationally respected National Institute of Education in Singapore in 1998.
He had thought that he was settled there with his family – he has two teenage daughters – when the offer came from Southampton. Why accept when, as The Daily Telegraph’s Make Britain Count campaign has been exploring, there are so many challenges around improving our national performance at maths?
He laughs. “I’d been looking at the British system for teaching maths since I was doing my Masters back in the early Eighties and had to translate a major report by Dr Cockcroft called 'Mathematics Counts’. So it was familiar. And, while it has great strengths as well as weaknesses, the British system is seen as a benchmark for comparisons internationally.”
It feels odd that he is extolling the virtues of our way of doing things, because most of the traffic seems to be heading in the opposite direction. On the question of suitable role models for improving the teaching of maths, British ministers and educationalists say two words with rare unanimity: “look East”.
That, for example, was the message of a Royal Society of Arts report, “Solving the Maths Problem”, published earlier this year. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), in its annual survey of global educational standards in 70 industrialised countries, places 15 year-olds in Shanghai’s schools way out in front of all the rest in maths skills, with Singapore second, and Britain 28th.
So what is their secret? “Children study maths as a compulsory subject to 17 or 18,” says Professor Fan. There is a particular emphasis on the subject, and the compulsion that Mr Gove would like to see introduced to ensure all 16- to 18-year-olds continue with their maths here.
There are different maths modules for older secondary school pupils, too, Professor Fan explains, in both Singapore and China. So some take maths courses designed to lead on to scientific subjects at university, and others opt instead for maths options geared to students keener on the arts, history or geography. “There are very, very, few exceptions made in Chinese schools,” he adds. “Perhaps a few students who want to study drama. Otherwise everyone does maths.”
Among other factors he highlights is quality of teaching. “Everyone who teaches maths in China is what is called a 'subject-specific teacher’. So when I was in the classroom, I only taught maths.” The same is true of Singapore’s secondary schools. But in Britain, fewer than five per cent of primary teachers have maths degrees, and an estimated 30-40 per cent of GCSE maths lessons are taken by teachers with qualifications in other subjects.
It is not just the teachers’ knowledge that counts, Professor Fan says. In China and Singapore, “They do a lot of professional development. It is locked into the timetable every week. Here, it seems to be less systematic. And teachers in Britain are sometimes afraid of their pupils being bored by maths. Of course, you have to make maths interesting, but that should come once pupils feel comfortable with the subject, once they have developed fundamental skills.”
The practice-makes-perfect philosophy underpins the maths textbooks used in Asian schools, some of them edited by Professor Fan himself. Isn’t there a danger, though, of children feeling too regimented? In its report, the OECD was full of praise for levels of achievement in maths in China, but did put a question mark next to the “intense examination and test” culture there. It quoted Xu Jilin, a professor of history at East China Normal University, whose son is at a Shanghai middle school. “This rigid examination system has created an exam-oriented education from the kindergarten,” he wrote, “a destruction of talent and waste of youth. Doing exercises every day is like practising gymnastics, repeating the same moves every day, hundreds of times, to make sure no errors are made during the exam.”
Professor Fan disagrees. “If by regimented, you mean children listen to their teachers, pay attention, that the teacher doesn’t have to waste time on discipline, then yes, it is regimented. But do they have less able pupils, or pupils with social problems? Of course they do. That can’t get in the way of learning. That is the culture.”
Back to that word again. Dr Martin Stephen, until 2011 High Master of St Paul’s in London, one of Britain’s top-performing private schools, has just spent 18 months travelling the world looking at different education systems, including those in the Far East.
“The way they teach mathematics in Singapore is brilliant – both in theory and in practice. They get the results we want to achieve, but when you examine how they do it, it is nothing new, nothing we didn’t use to do until the Sixties. Out there I saw good teachers using traditional methods that include rote learning – not a phrase you even hear in British classrooms today.”
And the classroom culture, Dr Stephen says, reflects a wider attitude in Asian societies. “There is respect for learning, and especially for maths. With that respect come rewards for teachers and respect from pupils they have to teach. You can almost see them taking their work more seriously as a result.”
So can we change the culture around maths here? “In many schools I have seen in Britain,” suggests Professor Fan, “there is good practice in maths; but in others there isn’t that culture of expectation.
“In Singapore, Lee Hsien Loong, our prime minister, left Cambridge with a First in maths.” Compare that with our own recent crop of law, history and PPE graduates at 10 Downing Street: Professor Fan may just be on to something.
[Professor Fan Lianghuo was formerly from the Mathematics and Mathematics Education Academic Group, NIE]
© Copyright of Telegraph Media Group Limited 2012
Source: The Telegraph, UK (Online)